I am currently reading a role-playing game (RPG) that has a very structured set of rules around social encounters. Players have the ability to take on the role of characters that are master social manipulators. Opponents can be defeated in a social context just as easily as they can with weapons or magic. I have played many games like this in the past and it has me wondering how many people actually use these rules as written? I know that I read through these structures and rules but rarely refer back to them in game. As the Games Master (GM) I usually take this sort of material in the stride of the game, including powers that are used in this manner by players.
RPG’s should have all social interactions role-played
This is a sentiment a lot of gamers. Especially old school gamers where the social structures of games were very hit and miss. I also feel like these are good guidelines for games. That said, I can also see that there are many, many, exceptions to this rule. That is why these structured social rules need to exist. Take for example the player who is pretty quiet but loves playing noble heroes that people are drawn to. I have seen these players sit in groups trying to get a word in edgeways and being ignored when they do speak because they do not have the force of personality that their character does. As a GM I have spoken to groups about how these player’s characters are the driving force with their personality and charm but other players ignore this. So it is just that a structured set of rules allow this to be played out. The charismatic character can then have an effect on the game. He calls out to the evil minion’s henchman and pleads with his better nature to turn to the good. A roll of the dice attached to skill and/or attribute allows the game to determine the outcome, not the player’s ability to convince the GM.
Regulation of social interactions makes things predictable
Social interactions in the “real world” can be seriously unpredictable. I have spent the better part of half a century on this Earth and the ins and outs of personality and social interaction still catch me by surprise. Daily. Maybe I just do not have the correct focus on my skills! Many gamers will think that this predictability makes a game somewhat less fun though. I can’t see this though. In games where you can fine-tune your characters to be able to be the best at fighting or magic, why should social interaction be any different? In nearly every game that I read where advancement is tied to overcoming obstacles, they are very clear that overcoming is not just through combat. I like that it can make things more predictable in a game. It allows the player more control over a social interaction and eliminates a GM being one-eyed in that circumstance.
The extra bookkeeping is frustrating
The current game that I am reading uses an attitude based system. Each non-player character (NPC) will have an attitude that gives the GM an idea of how they react to the characters. The particular structure of this game has seven different attitudes (awestruck, loyal, friendly, neutral, unfriendly, hostile and enemy). This is an easy enough thing to track in a scene or encounter but what about a game where NPC’s frequently recur in the player characters (PC) lives? What about games where the PC’s encounter the NPC’s separately and therefore the NPC has multiple attitudes to multiple characters in the same party? This sort of game will require serious bookkeeping from the GM. Also a major commitment to a revision of that bookkeeping to keep the continuity of the NPC personality believable. What happens when the NPC finds out the person they are loyal to is a close friend of their sworn enemy? Sure, interesting premise but unless this bookkeeping is done it may never play out and the players may feel confused as to why it did not.
Structure interrupts the role-playing
When you are in the middle of an encounter and there is a good conversation going on with an NPC should the GM call for a roll? Should they just go with the feel of the encounter and deliver information based on what is happening? This is a crucial question. After all, the flow to the encounter is not actually the PC, it is the player that is playing them. Should the elderly computer repairman tell them what he found on the hard drive because the encounter has flowed well? Or should the GM note that the character is the social equivalent of a four-year-old child and ask for the roll? There is no easy answer to this. I am faced with a game where there is a strong emphasis on social abilities but I would likely say that I would not call for the roll. In a game where you play an alter ego though there should be some other measure that means it is the alter ego that is represented not the player.
Social interaction in games is tricky
You may have read through all that and wondered where all my answers are? I really want to have a discussion over these issues because as I consider my answers to these situations are not up to measure. Are there groups out there that have these concepts down and run a seamless game? I would love to know your secrets. Help me, and others, make for a better game in social environments. Keep rolling!